The Great Forgetting

"The Great Forgetting" is a concept coined by Daniel Quinn in "The Story of B."

It is what he identifies as one of the three pillars of belief that allowed our culture to spread itself across the entire world.

The concept is startlingly simple.

It will make you wonder why nobody has ever explained it in this way before.

Why Our Culture Spread Like Wildfire

Our system of farming, which Daniel Quinn refers to as totalitarian agriculture provided the fuel for our culture's expansion. It was one of the key pillars. The second was an unwavering belief that our way of living was the right way of living for all humans. This was the second pillar and provided the basis for our cultural evangelism.

The third pillar was the Great Forgetting. It refers to a collective historical amnesia that made us forget where we had come from and warped our perception of our place in the world.

"What happened was that Neolithic farming communes turned into villages, villages turned into towns, and towns were gathered into kingdoms. Concomitant with these events were the development of division of labor along craft lines, the establishment of regional and interregional trade systems, and the emergence of commerce as a separate profession. What was being forgotten while all this was going on was the fact that there had been a time when none of it was going on."
- The Story of B

We know now that humans had been around for a long long time before our culture emerged in the near East. We know that most cultures were tribal, some agricultural but also many nomadic and hunter gatherers.

But during the early eras of civilization that fact would have been lost. Our culture would have naturally assumed that humans came into the world as civilized people who lived in towns and villages and that was our natural state of being.

Even this statement does not mean much to us today. Quinn however points out that the entire intellectual foundations of our culture have been built around the fact that humanity, agriculture and civilization began at the same time. The thought that humans had lived for many thousands of years in a totally different way was unimaginable.

Had we known that fact the foundations of our culture would have been laid in a completely different fashion.

And then Quinn points out the really interesting part. Once paleontology had exposed this fatal flaw in our understanding nothing changed. It didn't turn our understanding about our place in the world upside down. We just carried on as if nothing had happened.

Instead of saying humanity began with us we said that humanity was destined to become us and therefore history begins with us.


This is a brief summary of Daniel Quinn's ideas about The Great Forgetting. You can find his full essay on the Great Forgetting republished here.


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